Opinion: Homicide: life in the sticks
One thing I like about today's American cop programmes, like Homicide: life on the street and NYPD Blue, is that they give a rather more honest account than their British counterparts of what police work is really like. Even the excellent Prime Suspect and Inspector Morse conform to the received view of what police work should be, rather than what it is.
British scriptwriters seem wedded to a rather curious old-fashioned view that detective work is about detection - wise police officers discover clues from which they deduce the solution to a heinous crime. The CID is pitted against criminal intelligence. The police win when they are clever enough to outwit those who live outside decent society. The sop to contemporary realism is that, these days, the criminals sometimes win and sometimes the forces of law and order are shown for the corrupt shambles they sometimes are.
The American TV way is entirely different. Sure they have fictional traditions of detection, although much of it seems to be done in the courtroom rather than before the arrest. But in the main, police work is shown to be reducible to a set formula.
First, find somebody who seems a likely suspect - preferably somebody who has a prior conviction for a similar offence, or has been a suspect in one. Second, prevent them from getting 'lawyered-up', thereby denying them professional advice. Thirdly, intimidate or beat a confession out of them. Fourthly, celebrate the fact that even if the collar was innocent of this offence, it doesn't matter because a 'piece of shit' has been taken off the street.
The confrontation of good and evil, right and wrong makes you feel good. Who, when watching Detective Simone cross-examine a suspect, worries about whether the doped-up guy who obviously murdered the kids fully understands his Miranda rights? Yes, we know the evidence is purely circumstantial but it fits together and seems to make sense - and if it wasn't this piece of living scum, who was it? Okay, we know the main witness has every reason to lie. But who cares? Even if, by chance, the cops have got it wrong and he's innocent of this crime, he is probably guilty of another. Personally speaking, if my kid was harmed I would rather have Scipowicz on the case than any Oxford intellectual with a penchant for poetry and crossword puzzles.
At least that is what I thought until I saw the best tradition of American cop dramas enacted for real, through the arrest and conviction of Michael Stone for the brutal attack on Lynn Russell and her daughters. The development of the case against Stone could have been directed by Steven Bochco. A dramatic crime scene - mother, daughter and dog brutally butchered in idyllic Kent countryside. Surviving daughter battles against horrific injuries to recover sufficient power of speech to testify.
'Homicide: life in the village.' In the frame, nasty, mentally ill, heroin addict who, imprisoned for another offence, has allegedly confessed to a fellow inmate that he 'done it'. Everybody knew that one day he would murder somebody - he said he would, so it must be true. To the police, desperate for a conviction in a high-profile, high-sympathy case, Michael Stone must have seemed like an answer to a prayer. Everybody, the press, the public, the police, wanted him to be guilty. Could there have been a more convenient wrap-up? Until of course the big upset. Fellow prisoner is reported to have admitted to a newspaper that he lied about Stone's confession, suddenly all the evidence looks very circumstantial (no forensic, no clear identifi-cation, etc), and an appeal against the conviction has been issued.
Yet there is little or no public outcry for the evidence or the due process of law to be re-examined. Whether or not Stone actually murdered anybody on this occasion seems less important to the public debate that the fact that he is what Scipowicz might call a 'fucking piece of shit'. The world is better off without him on the streets.
'Convict without conviction' may make for excellent television, but it is bad law. Locking people up for what we imagine them to be is no substitute for solving a crime. Cynical American scriptwriters may be aware of this. The Kent police and the media which backed them seem to have lost the plot.
Reproduced from LM issue 116, December 1998/January 1999